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For Democrats, convention week is one big party

DENVER — In the course of just two days, Ana Cruz, a Democratic consultant from Tampa, had her picture taken while smooching actor Joe Pantoliano of The Sopranos, downed a patty melt at a late-night greasy diner with N.E.R.D. rapper Pharrell Williams and partied with actor Ashley Judd.

The stated goal of the Democratic National Convention is to anoint the party's nominee for president, Sen. Barack Obama, and to rev up the party activists for November. But in reality, it is so much more.

"This is the most fun a Democrat can have in four days," said Cruz, a Florida delegate to the convention.

• • •

Most of the official party business happens inside the Pepsi Center, a cavernous arena on the edge of Denver's thriving downtown. While folks back home see sleek productions featuring stars such as Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Michele Obama on prime-time TV, off air the convention delegates participate in a schizophrenic mix of the serious and the silly.

They munch on $6.50 hot dogs and sport sequined vests and fake straw hats. They do things such as choose the sergeant-at-arms — Nevada state Sen. Steven A. Horsford — and check out potential party leaders of the future, such as Lisa Madigan, the Illinois attorney general.

This part of the party is, as one might imagine, less than riveting.

"Look around this place, and tell me how many people are listening to Lisa Madigan right now," Florida state Sen. Steve Geller said Monday afternoon. Maybe 30 in a crowd of thousands looked tuned in. Geller wasn't one of them.

After Day One of his first convention, Geller wasn't impressed. "It's kind of boring," he said.

Well, yeah, Steve. No one would come if that was all there was to do. To find the real action, you've got to get out.

• • •

The convention is the Super Bowl for political junkies, a place for the freaks and geeks of the political class to play among their own. Think band camp for Democratic activists.

By day, they attend speeches by party luminaries such as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and seminars on topics such as media strategy. By night, they cheer the party heroes — Sen. Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts, former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner, and tonight, former President Bill Clinton — then pour into the brew pubs and restaurants downtown.

But there also is an endless array of breakfasts, lunches, dinners and receptions. David D. Ferriera, vice president of government affairs for the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, might call them opportunities.

Consider this: The Democratic Party has 4,440 delegates, including members of Congress, and about 600 alternates here. Yet 50,000 people were expected to descend on Denver. So who are they? And why are they here?

Thousands are journalists, of course. And congressional aides, party functionaries and activists protesting for animal rights, human rights, peace and bicycling. And big party fundraisers.

But thousands more are like Ferriera, advocates who hope to take advantage of this critical mass of people who really make the decisions. You can't throw a lasso without hitting a Democratic heavyweight — Sen. Mary Landrieu outside a cocktail lounge, Sen. Bill Nelson at breakfast.

They're all here. They're all in a good mood. There's plenty of booze.

"So we're having a lot of relaxed, face-to-face time with policymakers and lawmakers," Ferriera said while walking around downtown. He pointed across the street to where U.S. Rep. Ciro Rodriguez, D-Texas, was standing under a Starbucks sign.

"If I wanted to go over and say hello to him and have a little two-minute chat while walking down the street, it becomes a little bit easier."

• • •

Almost every major industry that wants some love from Congress — or wants to avoid being hammered by Congress — has sent people to Denver.

The American Wind Energy Association, which is seeking millions of dollars in tax breaks, rented a brew pub for an invitation-only party. Bank of America hosted a closed reception to tout its commitment to global warming. But one of the hottest tickets so far was to Planned Parenthood's Sex, Politics and Cocktails Party on Monday night at the Samba Room.

"Finally, someone lit a fire under Denver," said Sarah Sibley, a 31-year-old advertising writer from Denver who got in.

A dozen people crowded a makeshift dance floor, and waiters rushed by with trays of toasted corn cakes topped with shredded beef. Sibley took pleasure in watching people on the street press their noses to the window.

"I like it when there's people outside and I'm inside," she said, a mojito in hand.

But she didn't have a pink bracelet. The pink bracelet got you upstairs to hang out with Ashley Judd. (Alex Sink, Florida's chief financial officer, had a pink bracelet. She slipped upstairs.)

Scattered across the tables were little packets that looked like pink matchbooks. Their covers read, "Protect yourself from John McCain," and inside each was a single condom.

Wes Allison can be reached at allison@sptimes.com or (202) 463-0577.

For Democrats, convention week is one big party 08/26/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, August 27, 2008 4:05pm]

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